Like so many companies in Pennsylvania, Elsner Engineering in Hanover needed to find a way to close the gap that exists between job candidates’ skills and what the company was looking for. And with multiple parties involved with shared responsibility—educators, employers, students and their families—tackling the major question, “What do we do about it?” was daunting.
Elsner asked themselves this question and answered it in a dynamic way. Their successful solution is 15 years in the making and involves bringing together a trio of public and private sector forces to build the workforce of tomorrow.
Elsner took the initiative, teaming up with the Hanover Area Chamber of Commerce and the Department of Labor and Industry to implement a workforce development program that is helping the region achieve a more skilled workforce, and their program has become a model for how everyone with a stake in our state’s economic prosperity can work together to make this goal a reality.
The foundation of the current partnership began more than 15 years ago, when the Hanover Chamber partnered with Elsner Engineering, other local industry partners that identified specific training needs in machining, welding and mechatronics and area schools to implement an “Introduction to Manufacturing” program. This 18-week course for high school students – with a mission to grant them access to and knowledge of manufacturing employment opportunities in the region – helped them gain valuable exposure to good paying, family sustaining jobs.
“Our [geographical] distance from traditional workforce development training facilities drove the necessity of local workforce development training to be conducted in Hanover, primarily due to the demand of local businesses seeking qualified talent in a rural setting more than an hour’s drive from York Technical College,” Elsner Engineering Business Development Manager Gordon Laabs said. A high participation rate in the region, coupled with the public school districts’ cooperation, led these partners to agree to self-fund the program – a decision that Laabs views as a winning philosophy. “Self-funding demonstrates the industry and community’s shared commitment to educating the students who are interested in exploring local workforce opportunities … and allows local business to help shape desirable workforce outcomes without overburdening the current education model. In short, if we expect workers to be trained with an outcome that directly benefits our business community, our business community must be willing to directly financially contribute to the training to meet its desired goal.”
Elsner Engineering’s Gordon Laabs describes the firm’s efforts with the Hanover Chamber and the Department of Labor and Industry to close the region’s skills gap in a recent edition of the PA Chamber’s All Business podcast!
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Hanover Area Chamber of Commerce President Gary Laird also feels fortunate about the circumstances that led to the program’s development, including the geographical position of the Hanover area and the fact that it is home to many successful manufacturing businesses that have maintained a globally competitive workforce. Despite these benefits, the region still faced a declining trained workforce that made it incumbent upon the manufacturing community to embrace the development of workforce training programs.
“By granting students in the Introduction to Manufacturing program the access to and knowledge of manufacturing employment opportunities in the region, it forced businesses to ask the question – ‘Now that you’re interested in a career in manufacturing, how do we as the business community prepare you to be successful?” Laird said.
A Formula That Works
The Hanover area business community’s unwavering commitment to preparing today’s students to be part of tomorrow’s skilled workforce through the initial program hasn’t only survived over 15 years, it has thrived and continues to grow. “Train-the-Trainer” programs have now been implemented, offering new ways for local educators and students to connect, gain resources and receive hands-on experience.
In August, a commitment from the Hanover and South Western school districts, Elsner Engineering and the RH Sheppard Company, Inc. led to the first metalworking training event in Hanover where Mike Blizzard – a 30-year veteran of metalworking and an expert with the National Institute of Metalworking Skills – worked with students from three area high schools to lead training for pre-apprenticeships in the 2017-18 academic year. Those students obtained a nationally transferable certificate under the NIMS “Right Skills Now” program, as well as an opportunity to interview and enter directly into the local workforce upon their high school graduations. In addition, a goal was set for the evaluation and potential implementation of a full apprenticeship program for the 2019-2020 academic year.
When asked how the area’s educators and business leaders have worked together with such ease, Laabs indicated that this can be achieved anywhere if it is generally understood that workforce and academic goals do not need to be mutually exclusive. “The openness of two public school districts and the innovative mindset of companies representing more than $1 billion in local businesses have forged meaningful outcomes for students through local Chambers of Commerce,” Laabs said. “Hanover is a rural community, and like any other, small or large, it can put transformative programs in place with commercial and educational commitment to truly take ownership of the future and provide our children a positive economic outlook.”
Public Private Participation
It’s not the same type of “P3” that people are used to hearing about, but the involvement of the Department of Labor and Industry in the Hanover Chamber’s workforce efforts is truly groundbreaking as it teams up the public and private sector to help close the jobs skills gap. Most recently, the Hanover Chamber – which has allowed Elsner Engineering and three other participating companies to fall under the Chamber’s umbrella and connect with local businesses, schools and state government on workforce development - was recently announced as the first local chamber of commerce in the state to submit a Chamber Apprenticeship Model and have it be approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.
L&I set its sights on closing the jobs skills gap in 2016 through the creation of an Apprenticeship and Training Office (ATO). With a mission to work with employers and workers toward training for in-demand jobs and give Pennsylvanians the skills to get “jobs that pay” (a policy goal for the administration) the office has added 2,482 new apprentices and 70 new registered apprenticeship occupations statewide.
The ATO assisted the Hanover Chamber in developing a group model of apprenticeship through the chamber’s existing relations and the strong commitment they’d previously exhibited from their employer and education partners. ATO Director Eric Ramsay presented “registered apprenticeship” as a viable workforce solution to help develop the chamber region’s local talent at the high school level, so that graduating seniors could transition into positions with local employers.
“I suggested that the group work with the local high schools to embed some of the apprenticeship classroom-related instruction, so that the apprentice is more acclimated to the manufacturing industry,” Ramsay said. “Gary Laird, president of the Hanover Chamber, had the foresight and innovative thought to take on the challenge of becoming a group sponsor of a Non-Joint Apprenticeship program.”
The Hanover Chamber, its membership and the ATO worked to achieve the goal of getting the program approved within three months. In the time since its approval, Ramsay says his office has benefitted enormously from the Hanover Chamber’s involvement in registered apprenticeship, and their leadership in the group apprenticeship model. “The Hanover Chamber of Commerce and one of their employer members serve as apprenticeship champions to talk about their successes and points of concerns in developing their model,” Ramsay notes. “Chambers of Commerce have employers and instruction providers from different industries that can all be involved under the umbrella of the group apprenticeship program model. The group model of apprenticeship bolsters the ATO’s mission to expand the registered apprenticeship program.”
There can be no doubt that closing the state’s job skills gap will require a multi-tiered approach. But in studying the scenario with the Hanover Chamber, a shared understanding of the problem and a commitment to making it right is at the heart of the solution. “The buzzword ‘workforce development’ belies the complexity hidden in the history and usage of the phrase,” Gordon Laabs says. “For the purpose of workforce development in Hanover, Pennsylvania, we came to the shared goal, as a community, to create a standard for educating our students to acquire an in-demand skill set. We targeted the skill sets that allow immediate contribution to create additional value for our community and businesses that allow our area to continue to be an innovative and exciting place to work and live.”
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